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Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them

Book Review by Anita Lee

Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right by Al Franken, Dutton, 2003, 377 pages, $24.95
Al Franken really knows how to come up with a catchy book title. The political satirist and author of Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot has done it again with his latest book.

Titles, of course, aren't enough to make a book, but Franken follows through brilliantly in Lies with hilarious, though frightening, examples of outright lies from the Fair and Balanced Right. Unlike the Fair and Balanced Right, Franken undertakes the arduous task of documenting his assertions. To do this, he used a team of research assistants, TeamFranken he calls them, culled from the halls of Harvard, where he spent the spring as a fellow at the university's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy (more on this later).

Franken lets you, the reader, know how ridiculously easy it often was for TeamFranken to debunk many lies from the Fair and Balanced Right. A simple Lexis-Nexis search could have saved the Right from themselves in many cases.

The right-wingers take poorly to such criticism. This could be because, as Franken points out, they're not so used to it. One of the main points in the book is that the liberal media is not as omnipresent as it seems. He points to the conservative bent of The Washington Times, The National Review and the Wall Street Journal's editorial page. His best salvos, however, are reserved for the home of Fair and Balanced reporting, Fox News. Their handlers, of course, are the Bush administration.

The book also reinforces the fact that lies, when repeated, gain veracity.

Sadly, the Americans who tune in to Bill O'Reilly - - Bill O'Lie-lly as Franken calls him -- won't be the ones to pick up this book in droves, but fair-minded readers out there will see their suspicions confirmed in its pages.

O'Reilly is a big topic of the book, which his network tried to pre-empt with a lawsuit claiming copyright infringement of the channel's Fair and Balanced phrase. A judge threw out the suit, which was laughable. The lawsuit had the unintended effect of drumming up advance publicity for the book, no doubt helping to propel it to the top of The New York Times bestseller list.

Debunking O'Reilly lies turned out to be child's play for Franken. Simplicity is such an elegant way to prove a point.

In the book, Franken recounts a vitriolic exchange with O'Reilly while they served as panelists at a booksellers' convention. Both were hawking their wares, O'Reilly's being the since-released Who's Looking Out for You Now. The exchange appeared on C-SPAN and is available to download from the Internet for your viewing pleasure.

O'Reilly, it seems, once claimed to be the recipient of a Peabody Award, which he pointed out is THE most prestigious award in broadcast journalism. Franken also told O'Reilly that the folks who bestow the Peabody had no record of him winning one, as he claimed, while host of Inside Edition or at any other time.

During the panel discussion. O'Reilly said he had gotten it wrong. The award was a Polk. It turns out, as Franken wrote in his book, that the show won the Polk after O'Reilly had departed. Besides, how many most prestigious broadcast awards can there be?

Bill O'Reilly tackled with Al Franken at a book symposium this summer over the contents of Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them O'Reilly, more used to correcting his guests that being corrected by an upstart comedian, became irate during the panel discussion.

He hollered at Franken, "Shut up! You had your 35 minutes. Shut up. We're supposed to be on here for 15 minutes and this idiot goes 35."

Franken replied, "This isn't your show, Bill,"

Then moderator Pat Schroder tried to interject a little levity by saying, "I think I need a whistle and a striped shirt here. I'm not meant to be a referee."

O'Reilly exited the stage before the event ended.

In his book, Franken also takes on conservative columnist and author Ann Coulter, whose most recent book is Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism. Getting back to those catchy titles, Franken's chapter is called "Ann Coulter: Nutcase."

Again, simplicity provides the best illustration of her lies. Coulter was trying to illustrate the evil liberalism of The New York Times. The paper, she pointed out, failed to carry a story the day after Dale Earnhardt died. This was intended to show the newspaper's contempt for the Little Guy.

TeamFranken hardly broke a sweat to debunk her assertion. A Lexis-Nexis search quickly revealed a Times story on page one the day after Earnhardt's death. Coulter later tried to defend herself on a radio talk show. She acknowledged that, yes, the newspaper had carried a "mention" of Earnhardt's death. Franken had to correct her more than once on the radio show: The "mention," he pointed out, was a front page story.

She said that Franken needed to learn the difference between a mistake and a lie. She had made a mistake, since corrected. A pretty sloppy mistake, that one.

Franken himself practiced a little deceit for his book, but only in the interest of poking fun at those zany right-wingers. He took one member of TeamFranken, who posed as his son preparing for college, to visit ultra-Christian conservative Bob Jones University. Their ruse was exposed before the day was out, but it made for an amusing chapter.

The humorist also got in a little trouble with Harvard. He used the Shorenstein letterhead to send out a hysterical appeal for abstinence stories, based on the Dubya administration's belief that abstinence is all the sex education our kids need. He sent the letter to 27 Dubya-ites, saying he was collecting the stories for a book that would be titled, "Savin' It." The letter is priceless.

A flap ensued because Franken used a Shorenstein letterhead. He has since written an apology to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, one of the recipients, for sending the letter on Harvard stationary.

All this sounds like good fun, but don't forget the scary part.

Along with cover photos of O'Reilly and Coulter are those of George Bush and Dick Cheney. The book uses sound research to explore how the administration distorts its agenda with monikers like 'No Child Left Behind' while education policies, well, leave children behind.

One chapter is devoted to the Bush administration's pursuit of policies that benefit industry at the environment's expense. Franken selects an excellent, though unappetizing, example to illustrate his point: the proliferation of large-scale hog farms and the pollution they cause. Don't read this chapter over breakfast.

Conservatives are squealing about the book, of course, because they have basked in the comfort of Dubya's administration. However, they haven't been able to point to any lies in Franken's book.

His is one of several recent books by authors crying foul over the distortions offered up by the din of conservative voices having a field day with Dubya at the helm. Franken's voice is refreshing because, unlike his right-wing counterparts, he still has a sense of humor.
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